A petition to rewrite our media environment

Mr Azhar Kasman stomp
Editor of STOMP, Azhar Kasman, in the middle

By Howard Lee

Someone suggested that Robin Li was a pseudonym of mine.

The name is now synonymous with the online petition to shut down Stomp, a website owned by Singapore Press Holdings. Since it came to TOC's notice early this week, signatories to the petition has grown four-fold, and currently stands at more than 21,500.

The question was amusing, to say the least – yes, Robin, caped crusader, all that masked hero stuff. But no, I am not Robin Li, although I would dearly like to meet him and shake his hand.

And my reason is simple, nothing to do with heroism. Li has successfully encapsulated in his petition something about our media environment that those who either agree or disagree with him have somehow missed the mark on. More critically, Li's petition can be seen as an important flag for what we want our future-media to be.

Right to exist, need for ethics

Some of the arguments that rejected Li's petition were well-argued, and were based on Stomp's right to exist, as well as the right of people to use Stomp. The principles of FreeMyInterent were also referred to. Many of such well-argued views were clear in where they stand and are not afraid to provide evidence to defend their stand. This should be encouraged.

While well-intended, these views need to consider that Stomp cannot possibly fall into the scope of FMI, even if it exists online. FMI stood not just for free expression, but also the openness and responsibility of the Internet, as its reservations towards the actions by Anonymous in Singapore attests.

Stomp, on the other hand, is anything but free and open, nor does it seem intend on being so. It thrives on crass, and almost its entire focus is bent towards that purpose. It relies on the animal instincts of the mob to drive up ratings, and feed such emotions shamelessly without fear of reprisal. We have also seen that Stomp, or at least its staff, has no qualms about taking liberties with anonymity.

Stomp is not interested in good journalism. It's not even interested in online freedom. It is latching on to sensationalism for the key purpose of eyeballs and money. We are not even sure if there is any editorial discretion applied to the posts it made, because it has proved, more often than not, that it doesn't really care.

So we have the first dichotomy that this petition suggested: Do we want media that exists on a pretence that is propagated by itself, or media that, as academic Cherian George once professed, keeps the people on top rather than on tap?

High expectations, wrong execution

Blame it on the way the government has consistently insisted that our media has to be objective (really, it does not), reliably accurate (on our best days, yes), open (because anonymity is seen as an eternal evil) and non-sensationalist (and we are getting very close to an anti-description of Stomp right now), we have been bred, or fed, to believe that these impossible standards of journalism are critical to have in our media.

Li must be no exception. He compared Stomp to the media he sees around him, and with the increasing diversity of online sources, he clearly saw what high standards in alternative media can be. He made a judgement call that put words to what has been on the fingertips of 20,000.

What comes out of the petition, however, remains to be seen. Stomp will not disappear by itself, nor can we realistically hope that its readership will falter. Either SPH or the government has the ability to do something. And because this is a genuine ground-swell against Stomp, something should really be done about it.

I have sent questions to the Ministry of Communication and Information and the Media Development Authority, asking precisely about how these high standards of journalism will be applied to Stomp in the light of this increasingly popular petition. Will the government take action? What does it tell about the regulatory environment and the standards in media that the government has continually espoused?

Gabriel Chong, MDA's Assistant Director for Competition and Content Policy, replied as such:

STOMP, like other class licensed and individually licensed sites, is required to comply with the Internet Code of Practice (“Code”). If you have come across instances where STOMP is in breach of the Code, you are advised to bring these to our attention and MDA will investigate accordingly.”

In short, MDA will not be taking action, unless we state explicitly where Stomp has contravened the Internet Code of Practice, and present it to MDA on a silver platter.

This Code prohibits material that are “objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws.” It also specifically prohibits material that “glorifies, incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious strife, hatred or intolerance.”

I guess Li's view, and the views of more than 20,000, that Stomp “promotes cyber-bullying and cause unrest among fellow citizens” does not really count as an infringement of Singapore laws in this Code.

Oddly, it would appear that MCI has earlier acknowledged that Stomp is responsible for “negative behaviour” propagated online.

Is MDA ignoring the views of its parent Ministry?

Indeed, Chong's reply bypassed an important issue, where both the government and mainstream media have unabashedly supported a guided principle of what media should be. But citizens are not blind – they can see that SPH's little pet project to command the online media space is a far cry from these standards.

In truth, the petition is not about Stomp closing down, but the principles of journalism (I use the word loosely here on Stomp) it should be held to. Why have a multitude of media regulations that attempt to “manage” the content of online websites, when the most blatant disregard of these standards is staring you in the face? Why focus unnecessary attention on websites that have, on any given day, produced reasonable content that attempt to make a better Singapore, and leave alone a website that has, on any given day, produced content that incite hatred, distrust and finger-pointing among the people?

Hence the second dichotomy that the petition suggested: Do we want media that are there simply because they are registered with the authorities on terms that appear out of touch, or media that can survive the test of time because they have been honourable to the profession of journalism?

The policy response – to crass, or to reasoned arguments?

The fact of the matter is, Stomp distracts. Not only does it distract the people, it also distracts policy makers. It has been more than once that I have heard people in public service say they need to respond to a post made on Stomp, simply because it is getting the level of publicity that, in my opinion, it really should not deserve.

Why not? Because Stomp focuses on the everyday transgressions, which are needlessly plenty, but not always meaningfully targeted. For sure, the government needs to address these, but an over-emphasis on solving the symptoms distracts it from addressing the root causes.

For example, there was a period where Stomp showed policemen sleeping in their squad cars or taking a break. They have made citizens angry and indignant, and all that made for good readership. But beyond that, was there any meaningful discussion on whether our boys in blue might be overworked to the point of exhaustion?

What then the government's response? Did they ask the patrolmen to shy away from the public eye? Did they ask Stomp to stop publishing such photos? Or did they reinforce police manpower? Which action would you rather have? And following that, which media would you have that supports such action?

And so, the third dichotomy that the petition suggested: Do we want media that seeks short-term gratification to social problems, or long-term solutions that move us along as a society?

* * * * *

The above three dichotomies in no way represents what the petition is about, but are merely my ideas about how this petition can be an opportunity for us to examine and decide on our future media environment.

At the end of the day, only SPH and the government can do something about Stomp. They need not close it down, as I do not think that was Li's intent, but they can change what it does. They can also choose to ignore the petition, as MDA has clearly preferred to, since 20,000, 50,000, or a million viewers, tuning out of Stomp is of no significance to a site of its current reach.

But action is necessary. The people have spoken.

I only hope that they do it not because someone's petition reached x numbers of signatories, or because Stomp is a really terrible website, but because they consistently believe that there is a need to do real justice to a media space that all Singaporeans deserve.